Over the Waves: SS City of Medicine Hat

When you think of Saskatchewan, what comes to mind? Flat, fields of wheat, blue sky, prairie... Probably not shipwreck. Today I'm going to tell you the story of one of the few wrecks in Saskatchewan, right in the South Saskatchewan River - the wreck if the SS City of Medicine Hat.

Ship Stats

  • Nationality: Canadian
  • Length: 39.6 metres
  • Beam: 7.9 metres
  • Speed: 12 knots
  • Year: 1907

Built and sailed by Captain Horatio Hamilton Ross, the SS City of Medicine Hat was a sternwheeler steamer. She had been built after Ross's first ship, the Assiniboia, had been caught in ice and sank in Manitoba. Ross was a Scottish nobleman who had come to Canada before the turn of the century, and he had created a steam-shipping business across the prairies. The City of Medicine Hat had cost him and his investors $28,000, and she was outfitted with brass and oak, a well as various other extravagances. No expense had been spared on creating his latest addition to his fleet.

On June 7, 1908, just after she turned a year old, Ross was sailing the City of Medicine Hat up the South Saskatchewan River through Saskatoon. He had decided to take the ship from Medicine Hat, AB, to Winnipeg, MB with friends and family on board. The river was quite swollen due to the spring flood, but his crew (albeit hung over from a night of carousing), set about trying to navigate the various bridges that spanned the rivers. Ross let his passengers off before they reached the Grand Tuck Railway Bridge so they could spend some time in the town, and he lowered his smokestacks so he could fit under the bridges.

Unfortunately, the high waters had obscured a telegraph line, and the ship steamed right over it, losing its rudder. Ross quickly found himself without a way to steer, and scrambled to get the ship under control. One theory says that a crew member jumped into the water and swam to shore with a rope to stry and secure the ship. Either way, the ship drifted with the current and struck the Traffic Bridge, becoming wedged against the pillar. The crew and Ross abandoned the ship, leaving it there for the city to deal with. The city workers were afraid that the pressure of the ship against the bridge would undermine the structure, so they managed to free it from under the bridge and broke her up so she wouldn't get snagged again. Her boiler was recovered and used in a local dairy, and some other items were recovered (and now reside in regional museums) but the rest of her was left to disappear under the waves of the river.

She faded from thought and memory over time, until 2006. It was then that two Saskatoon firefighters found a large kedge-anchor and were able to identify it as being from the City of Medicine Hat through photo verification. In September 2008, a five day expedition was mounted to dive in the area where the anchor was found. The divers uncovered quite a few artifacts, but the ship itself was still hidden.

Then, in 2012, while demolishing the Traffic Bridge, workers came across even more items. Archaeologists were brought in and they confirmed, through drilling holes and locating pieces of hull, that they had found the wreck of the City of Medicine Hat. They have also said that it is possible that Ross wrecked the ship on purpose. Apparently it was losing money, and archaeologists have pointed to the lack of personal effects on board as proof that maybe he didn't intend to try and save her.

The Saskatoon Star described the wreck of the SS City of Medicine Hat "the greatest marine disaster in the history of Saskatoon." As I mentioned at the start of this article, most people probably don't think of shipwrecks when they think of Saskatchewan. I was surprised to find the story of the City of Medicine Hat, but I'm glad that I did. It just goes to show that even places that you wouldn't expect still have a speck of maritime history.

Images this week are from here and here